I’ve recently started re-reading the novels that launched me in to role-playing. They weren’t my first fantasy novels, but they were the ones that took a young boy with an interest in the fantasy genre and made him into a full-fledged role-playing geek. Now that I’ve got over 20 years of GM’ing under my belt my reading experience is a little different and I find myself noticing new things; for example, why does the little guy with the top knot survive all of his misadventures? Out of the entire party he is the one who reached death’s doorstep, or should have, the most – (spoiler alert) but he survives, and thrives.
We’ve all seen it before, characters who should be dead or who were never supposed to be part of the story come alive and not only thrive but grow to legendary proportions. One of my most enduring characters was brought in to the campaign because the GM told us we needed a healer. So I wrote a partner character for my Ranger, he was more of an NPC than anything, really bad strength, dexterity, and constitution, lots of phobias and weaknesses, designed to hang out in the background and provide healing support and some occasional comic relief. Well the campaign was harder than we thought and more often than not Father Trebonius was required to make his Will save and wade into battle, which usually involved throwing a well timed and well-aimed rock at an enemies head. He had limited spell use, restricted mostly to healing and charms and had only one weapon proficiency (rocks, I’m not joking). To make him interesting I gave him a fun back-story and in the end, he saved the day more than anyone else and outlasted my Ranger. Father Trebonius was brought out of retirement for two other campaigns at later dates because he was a fan favourite and we couldn’t get enough of him. So what was it about the goofy, and limited Trebonius, that allowed him to survive when everyone else around him was more “epic”, and to that point why did that little Kender from those novels outlast almost everyone else?
1. Fun for the GM:
Lets face it; the fate of your character is solidly in the hands of the DM. You don’t see the stats of the baddies, and you don’t see the DM’s roles so no matter how bad you role or how many blunders you make – if the DM wants them alive they will be. Here’s a secret, we fudge the roles – a lot. Role-playing is about shared story telling; it’s about advancing the plot and growing the characters and like any good novel or movie a strong protagonist, or protagonists, is essential. The story cries out for it and any character can fall into the role. There is nothing we DM’s love more than an interesting PC that we can write into the story. I try to write all of the characters into the campaign, but sometimes it’s like the player was reading my mind. With interesting characters we start writing encounters based on them, giving the players an opportunity to flex their role-playing muscles or show off their new sword, characters that bring out our creativity last longer – we just don’t want to see them go.
2. Fun for everyone else:
If you make a character that is fun for you to play but rubs everyone else wrong, they won’t last. I’ve seen it often – some well-meaning player makes a character that cause party conflict, either by design or by some cosmic accident and they die, usually horribly. We chock the conflict up to role playing their character but it brings the whole party down and when their hanging from the cliff face in the heat of battle, no one is coming to save them. That makes things very difficult for the GM, even if they want to save you. Now I’m not saying that the silent brooding types can’t become legendary, they have a place in the party as well (think the red robed, hourglass eyed mage), and sometimes they are just as engaging for the GM as the loveable Kender. In fact party conflict is a good thing, it happens, and it should – because all good characters have things they love and hate and when you bring together a group of three-dimensional PCs they should get on each others nerves every now and then; but there is a difference between brooding or depressed and purposely causing conflict. Here’s another little secret GMs don’t like that, we want some conflict but when it starts taking away from the story it gets annoying and suddenly the monsters start rolling really well against that one PC who’s always causing fights.
3. Engaged in the story:
When you look at that little guy with the topknot, the Kender that everyone loves, he was engaged in every part of the story. He had his little fingers, literally and figuratively, in everything. He was front and centre when interacting with NPCs, he was always at the front of the line exploring and trying new and exciting things, and even though he wasn’t a good fighter he was involved in every battle – often in unexpected ways. Quirky Father Trebonius was the same; he was a joy to role-play so whenever NPCs showed up he took centre stage and the other PCs would step aside to watch. When we had down time he always found something interesting to occupy the parties time, and when battle happened I was either finding interesting ways around his phobias or I was finding creative uses of his spells so he could still be involved in the fight, in some way. Here’s the short and dirty: if you have designed a character that does not want to, or cannot be involved in the story, someone who is just along for the ride, then the GM won’t engage with them, and won’t save them when they role a 1.
4. Able to contribute to the whole story:
Let’s go back to the Kender, he really illustrates this point well. As a character he was designed to have some skill or attribute that could contribute in almost every situation, his race helped with this. Kender are immune to fear and are insatiably curious. But when the party was taken prisoner and locked in a cage for days on end, without his lock picks I might add, he was useless. He couldn’t bend the bars or magic their way out. No one would blame him for sitting sullenly waiting for an opportunity to apply his now useless skill set. But he didn’t, he called upon his racial heritage and talked everyone’s ears off, he told tall tales and he asked incessant questions about the other characters backgrounds, and most importantly, he engaged their captors – or one of them in conversation, which led to a friendship of sorts. He annoyed everyone, but he also kept their morale up and the story moving forward, he took the time to bring out other people’s back-story and he created a new, and likely novel, story arch involving their captor. In other words, he was contributing – and he was designed that way. As a GM I would love nothing more than for the PC’s to take some time to get to know each other while they are being held hostage, to tell tall tales and ask questions of one another. I would gladly take hours out of our story for that opportunity, because it creates a complete story, making the PCs more relatable and more genuine to the rest of the party. Those are the characters that I want to save, and as a GM I would have done it exactly the same way Margaret and Tracy did, by having the befriended captor break the lock. This might sound like I’m advocating for a party of generalists; I’m not. I’m also not saying specialists aren’t necessary and engaging, but when you design your specialist make sure that there are aspects of them (e.g., personality or past) that can contribute to other parts of the tale. Make sure that when your undead slaying knight isn’t slaying zombies he has something else to offer or they will become boring and disconnected very quickly.
5. The back story:
A PC’s back story is the foundation that their involvement in the campaign is built on. How they engage with NPCs, PCs, and the story is, like you and me, built on their past experiences. It doesn’t have to be a 50 page novella, you don’t even need to write it out, I didn’t write out Father Trebonius’ back story, after all he wasn’t supposed to survive for long after we found some healing items. But I knew it, and I knew it when I built him. His was simple, he was raised a gypsy by loving gypsy parents; he was a talented storyteller and very charismatic. He loved to drink and dance and flirt and tell stories. But he also had a longing in his heart for more knowledge. When he has a young man he joined a priestly order devoted to knowledge. He learned some spells and he absorbed books and languages like nobody’s business, but ultimately his love of partying got him kicked out of the order. Which is when he joined up with the party. Simple – but it defined how he interacted with the world and it gave the GM something to work with, it made it possible for the GM to easily write in something that would engage my back story and pull Trebonius in even if he was afraid, which he was… all the time…. The GM was thankful.
6. Weakness and vulnerability:
The best characters are the ones that can fall apart, the ones who have fought through life and have the scars to prove it. A GM loves a character with a weakness; I don’t mean Superman’s kryptonite, but some character flaw that can be used against them. Maybe a phobia or an obsession, maybe they think it’s their strength like the moustachioed knight who lived his life by a very strict code of honour. That code nearly got him killed as much as the Kender’s curiosity! Giving the GM something that they can use against you will make your role playing experience more fulfilling and will bring them a great amount of joy. Watching the players squirm when you force them in to an ethical dilemma dragged out of their past is one of the most satisfying moments in a GM’s experience – because we know their engaged and we know they care.
Hopefully these reflections can help you make a character that your GM will refuse to kill, no matter how badly you role, or how many bad decisions you make. Also, maybe it will inspire you to pick up those amazing books, if you haven’t already, and fall in love with that little top knotted rogue and his companions.
Bryan Sali is a gaming enthusiast and geek, also a professional coach. When not playing D&D, or thinking about it, or writing the next adventure, you can find him playing board games or online games, or watching movies, or spending time with his wife and dogs.
All blog materials created and developed by the staff here at High Level Games